Will politics outpace facts on May Town Center?

Monday, June 22, 2009 at 12:00am

Very real factors can affect the plausibility of the proposed May Town Center development being voted through by the Metro Planning Commission and Metro Council.

There are traffic impact studies and economic impact studies. There are alternate land use development plans and schematics, multi-million-dollar bridges, the potential for massive job creation and dozens of other variables.

But arguably two of the most important factors at play are politics and race.

Their confluence may well determine the May Town Center vote. Developers have offered land and a $400,000 endowment for Tennessee State University to build an agricultural research park.

TSU is a school with a historically black enrollment, which one Metro Council member admitted affects the way the development is perceived.

District 1’s Lonnell Matthews Jr., an African-American Metro Councilman whose district includes the 600 Bells Bend acres that would house May Town Center, said politics will play a role in the issue advancing.

“I see that [politics will be a central issue],” said Matthews, who has publicly stated his support for the project. “I was talking with [Planning Director] Rick Bernhardt and he said, ‘As you all are making decisions, some of them will be politically driven, whether to consider putting some of the conditions in, or taking some out.’”

Matthews admitted that a controversial second bridge for the project, which would link May Town Center across the Cumberland River to west Nashville, would be a political issue as much as a philosophical land-use decision.

The second bridge is one of 17 strict conditions that the planning department staff added to their approval recommendation of the MTC plan. Some believe the issue could derail the project altogether. The bridge is located in the middle of west Nashville Councilman Buddy Baker’s district, and because of that Baker, who is white, said he opposes May Town Center.

Baker joins fellow at-large Council members Jason Holleman and Emily Evans in opposition to May Town Center because of its traffic impact on their districts.

At-large Councilman Jerry Maynard pointed out that traffic is a concern for west Nashville, economic development and the potential benefits for TSU are more important factors for North Nashville.

Maynard said he was exploring whether TSU could actually pull off its ambitious plans for the agricultural research facility it plans to build on land donated by the May family.

Like other public schools across the state, TSU is operating under difficult budgetary conditions. In the grand scheme of things, a $400,000 endowment can seem dwarfed in comparison to the proposed $4 billion development.

“The fact TSU is now involved makes me look even further at the details and it does influence my decision whether to support May Town Center or not,” Maynard said.

Regardless of factors, one prominent unnamed Nashville lobbyist, who is not working on the May Town Center issue, broke down the odds of the development actually happening this way.

“If the Planning Commission approves it, then there will be a 90 percent chance it passes Council,” the lobbyist said. “If the commission doesn’t approve it, there’s a 90 percent chance it fails.”

That prediction demonstrates the importance of the Planning Commission vote, which will likely take place at a June 30 special meeting. If the commissioners approve May Town Center, rezoning the land would only require a majority vote (21 votes) of Council. If commissioners vote to disapprove, May Town Center will need a two-thirds majority from Council, or 27 votes.

A prominent May Town Center opponent, David Briley — who knows his way around the local political landscape — predicted that politics will influence Council much more than it will the Planning Commission.

“That’s because commissioners have to ask questions and address issues, and so does Council, but I would anticipate that politics will play much less of a role on the Planning Commission,” the former Councilman and outspoken May Town Center opponent said.


4 Comments on this post:

By: imdyinhere on 6/22/09 at 5:18

IF race is a factor (I'm not certain it is, nor can anyone be) it's only because MTC developers cynically used college students when they offered TSU a huge gift as incentive for helping the development get approval.

By: cdkoellein on 6/22/09 at 9:42

TSU has for years sought opportunities to expand its agricultural programs in line with its land-grant mission. And, with specific expertise on research parks among its top staff and the proximity of TSU to the site, the research park is a huge win for the city, providing something that's been conspicuously absent from our economy for a long time.

I think the cooperation of TSU and May Town Center makes perfect sense and, rather than be cynical about it, we should be really excited. Davidson County's local economy and tax base are about to get a lot more stable.

By: Equanimity on 6/22/09 at 1:05

Of course, if memory serves, the brothers May have generously separated the $400K and the land donation from the approval of development. This has the net effect of pulling the race card out of the equation altogether. TSU will be a "dream grant university" (Senator Harper's characterization) regardless of the Planning Commission decision. That may be the only good news in all this. Assuming of course that Jack, Frank, and Tony wouldn't lie to TSU.

If there is a question of racial impact it should revolve around the second bridge. If one demographic suffers the effect of dramatically increased traffic, crime, and pollution, why not another?

I'm not sure there is much of a race issue here. From what I've seen at Planning Commission meetings and elsewhere, everyone seems pretty well informed, educated, and able to make draw their own conclusions here. The question is, does the Planning Commission know represent the best interest of the people it is charged to serve and protect. What a legacy this commission will leave!

By: topthinker on 6/22/09 at 3:55

Dkoellein: Perhaps you should identify yourself as a Maytown Development employee.

Did you know that TSU already owns two underused farm properties? No one in the Bend minds them having a third farm, if that's what they want. If the Mays were really interested in organic farming or conservation or helping TSU in any of these areas, they have ample opportunity to do so without MTC.

And, of course, no one needs to support MTC just so TSU can get its third farm--we have been reassured many times that the gift is a done deal and not conditional. So the farm is a go, MTC or no--isn't it?

And no research center is going to get off the ground without multiple levels of support: where are Belmont, Vandy, Meharry, Fisk, or, actually, the regents who actually control TSU's activities? Haven't heard that they are even going to let this happen.